Nautilus

WeChat Is Watching

It’s 9 a.m. on a typical morning in Chengdu and I’m awakened by the sound of my phone alarm. The phone is in my study, connected to my bedroom by sliding doors. I turn off the alarm, pick up my phone, and, like millions of people in China, the first thing I do is check my WeChat. At 9:07, I send my first message of the day.

WeChat, the brainchild of Tencent—one of China’s big three tech giants—is often referred to in the West as a social media app, something equivalent to Facebook or WhatsApp, but that’s to undersell it. WeChat has over 1 billion active users. In China, people don’t refer to it as a social media platform but rather as a social ecosystem. The features are seemingly endless. Beyond the typical social media functions of messaging and a Twitter-style feed called “friend circle,” it can be used to make payments for almost anything. Because developers can slot their apps directly into WeChat and tie them into the social and payment functions, it acts like a very sleek and efficient operating system. If it wasn’t for the fact that I grew up in London and use a VPN to jump the great firewall to keep in touch with my friends at home and use Google, I could go entire days without leaving WeChat.

WE RUN: A screenshot from the author’s WeChat app compares how many steps he’s taken in a day, ranked against his friends—a reminder that even with a daily action like walking, the omniscient app has got his number.

At 9:27, once I’ve brushed my teeth, answered a few messages, and wiped the sleep from my eyes, I order a coffee through WeChat. There’s a payments window on the app, and when you click on it you see various options, some proprietary to WeChat and some which are independent apps that run on WeChat’s platform. I open the Meituan delivery app and scroll through all the coffee options around me. I order an Americano. I have my WeChat linked with the facial recognition scanner on my iPhone; when I pay, I just hold my phone up to my face and a green tick flicks across the screen. Seven minutes later, I get a message telling me the coffee is on the

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